Here’s a heart-warming tale of two great Kathakali masters of the 19 century.
Nalan Unni (1807-1865) and Kunju Karthavu (1829-1897) were two renowned Kathakali actors of the 19th century. Both led their artistic life separately in two different parts of Kerala. The Kathakali aficionados of the period wished to see them perform together but it never happened. However, both of them had an interesting interaction at a later stage, unknown to many.
Nalan Unni hailed from Ettumanoor in Kottayam district. He was originally named Raman and was addressed by his pet name, Unni. He pioneered the dissemination of ‘Nalacharitam’ in the erstwhile Travancore and central Travancore areas. One of the stories about ‘Nalan’ Unni was that, besotted by his performance as Nala, one of the princess of the Travancore royal family fell in love with him. Fearing the king’s punishment, Unni absconded from the place and spent a long time disguised as the Bahuka (Nala in disguise).
Nevertheless, the most interesting story attributed to him is related to his mettle as a seasoned performer. During his exile, Nalan Unni happened to reach a place, where ‘Nalacharitam Randam Divasam’ was being staged with a renowned actor of that area in the role of Nala. Observing the performance keenly and deciding that the alien visitor might be an outstanding scholar or actor of the art, the patron of the troupe solicited his comments for which Unni simply said that it was okay. This happened several evenings.
That compelled the patron to ask Unni whether he had not noticed the tears the actor had shed when separated from Damayanti and suggested the visitor himself to enact Nala’s role. During the scene of separation, the visitor did not shed a single drop of tear. However, there were tears in the eyes of the audience as they realised the stranger was none other than the great Nalan Unni himself!
(Here, I would like to mention that this method of acting presented by Nalan Unni is the one prescribed in the Natya Sastra, which advocates the separation of the actor from the character.)
Coming to Kunju Karthavu, he was a disciple of his legendary uncle Ravunni Karthavu, and was hailed both for his devotion to and his role as Hanuman, thus known as ‘Hanuman' Karthavu. In his magnum opus ‘Kathakalirangam,’ Kathakali historian K.P.S. Menon attributed the period 1850-1900 of Kathakali history as the period of Kunju Karthavu.
The master who hailed from Cherpulacherry of Palakkad district, was quite unimpressive in physique. But the unusual combination of beauty in costume, brightness of the eyes, technical perfection and the charm of aesthetics that he unveiled during his act earned him laurels and respect as an actor.
Though junior to him, Nalan Unni longed to see Kunju Karthavu at least once during his life time. Finally, during his brief stint at Nilambur in northern Kerala, it was possible for Unni not only to see Kunju Karathavu but to watch his maiden performance as Nala in ‘Nalacharitam Randam Divasam.’
It was arranged and Nalan Unni was astonished by the radiance of Karthavu in the role of Nala, that too in his maiden performance! Unni went back stage and politely asked Karthavu who had trained him, especially his hand gestures. “My mother’s elder brother,” Karthavu replied through gestures. This compelled Unni to ask, “From whom did you learn Nalacharitam?” To his shock, Karthavu replied in gesture, “From you, of course!” and went away.
An astonished Nalan Unni learnt much later that during a pilgrimage to Kanyakumari, Karthavu visited the Padmanabha Swamy temple en route, and that’s where he happened to watch Unni’s performance of Nala. That one performance was enough for the calibre of such a talented actor like Karthavu to pick up the nuances!